The 5 Why’s Approach — Building a Culture of Learning

Comparative Agility
4 min readMar 31, 2022

Is an initiative failing? We knew it! Was a mistake made? By who? If a mistake happens, we typically look for someone to blame. In turn, many of us will avoid risks or will play it safe to avoid being pointed out. Progress suffers from fear of taking action. Making this even worse, the finger-pointing kills curiosity and with it the chance to learn. What can we do to prevent this?

If We Want Progress, Mistakes Must Happen
Mistakes happen. And if today we preach risk-taking, speed, and experimentation, we have to expect even more mistakes. Giving people more responsibility while enabling autonomy, means giving more opportunities to fail.

A person who never made a mistake never tried something new.

The number of failures is an indicator of risk-taking along with initiatives to explore new and better ways of doing things.

Some companies aim for a defined number of mistakes/failures to encourage employees to try more “new” things and to think in even wider and various directions. A nice example is the Google Graveyard, which lists projects “Killed by Google”. A sign of Google’s exploratory ambition.

Looking at the average organization, the risk (in cost, credibility, reputation in the market, etc) is often too high to encourage a high number of attempts with a very low probability of success. However a “failure friendly culture” is also about simply being bolder in ideas and execution, about the courage to experiment. It’s about being able to react more quickly to changes in customer needs, technology, or the market by taking risks and relying on trial and error. Their focus is on promoting an adaptive organization, a learning organization. Thus, it is above all about appreciating mistakes as opportunities to learn.

Learning from a mistake or failure begins with reflection. Many objective but also subjective (non-judgmental) impressions must be obtained and analyzed from different perspectives. Where was the cause? Can a pattern be identified (in the case of several such events)? How can we eliminate or neutralize the cause in the future? What can we learn about ourselves and our work that will help us do better in the future?

Blame Causes Defensiveness and Blocks Reflection
If we are too busy trying to find someone to blame, we don’t really ask ourselves the above questions in the first place. And the one who could have given important input to the questions — is too busy defending themselves. Or worse yet, that person might be influenced by the company culture and is getting ready to point fingers at someone else. In many companies, a culture of blaming is the result of a tradition of punishing mistakes. People lose their jobs or reputation (or both), and experience minor negative consequences.

In order to prevent a culture of blame, there also needs to be an atmosphere of openness, psychological safety, to be able to reflect and learn. Finally, practice is needed here. Helpful techniques can also rekindle curiosity and exploratory ambition in the workforce.

A number of techniques can also be found in the case of, but are not limited to agile methodology. Let’s look at this one, the “5 Why’s” — Five sequential why questions (aka Root Cause Analysis), illustrated by the much-told example of the Lincoln Museum.

The 5 Why’s Example
“The National Park Service was faced with the problem that the exterior of the monument was deteriorating rapidly. To address the wear and tear, the stone would require periodic costly replacement or restoration. Via the 5 why questions posed by Park Service leaders to the maintenance crew, the problem was more easily resolved.

1- Why is the material deteriorating so quickly?

Answer: Because of the high-powered sprayers used to clean the monument every two weeks.

2- Why are high-powered washes required every two weeks?

Answer: Because of the number of bird droppings on the stone.

3- Why are there so many bird droppings?

Answer: Because many birds come to feed on the spiders.

4- Why are there so many spiders?

Answer: They are attracted by the many insects that are all around there at night.

5- Why are there so many insects?

Answer: They are attracted by the powerful spotlights used to illuminate the monument at night for tourists.

Instead of turning the lights on two hours before sunset, they were turned on 30 minutes after sunset and turned off thirty minutes before sunrise in the morning. The number of insects was reduced by 90 percent — problem solved.”

This example points out that the focus should be less on jumping to conclusions and giving out guilty verdicts, and more on better understanding (and then influencing) the circumstances that lead to the mistake.

Treat Mistakes As a Cognitive Challenge — Be Curious!
Curiosity — how did the failure occur? Why did an idea fail? Analyzing the circumstances together to find the weak points. Accept failure in the past as a cognitive challenge to become smarter and better. Over time, the lack of placing blame and shame on people will support a learning orientation in the organization — a common eagerness to draw the most helpful insights from the event and to derive from this the best measures for the future.

This article is written by Dr. Stefanie Puckett, an author of the Agile Culture Code Assessment featured on Comparative Agility and it was first published here.